Speech to the Scottish Labour Party conference
31st. October 2015
Everything the NHS means to me is round my neck this afternoon.
This necklace is a watch chain that belonged to my great-grandfather.
He was a miner and he was killed in an explosion in 1930s. When he died, my great-grandmother went into service and decided to hold on to the watch chain, his most valuable possession.
She knew that if any of her three young daughters ever needed a doctor, she could sell it to pay for their care. It was an insurance policy should something unforeseen hit the family she needed to support.
That's why we created the NHS, so that women like my great grandmother would no longer have to worry about paying for a doctor, so that they had assurance that if illness befell their family, then their taxes paid through their daily toil would provide the care they need.
On the day the NHS was created, the youngest daughter from that family had become a nurse and was working in Glasgow Royal. She thought that everything would change that day, that at least the nurses would get a cream cake.
Nothing changed in her working day, but really everything changed that day. Families across the country got that reassurance that healthcare was secure.
That nurse was my Gran. I sat with her everyday in Ninewells hospital this summer as she died and the care she received from the nurses and doctors was impeccable.
And that is why Labour will always fight to protect our greatest achievement. But to protect it properly for future generations, we need to take action.
Every day we read in the papers about the pressures on our NHS and the consequences for patients, who are waiting longer and longer for treatment. The reports calling for change are mounting up. And we have heard from delegates today the impossible job that our NHS staff are being ask to do.
In my own community in Dundee, NHS Tayside has been asked to make £27 million of cuts in the next year. Conference, I have no idea how you would find those kind of efficiencies in an NHS which is already under serious pressure.
I say to the Health Secretary Shona Robison, if she wants the health board to make £27 million worth of cuts in our community, she should tell us where these cuts should fall.
Currently, we have an SNP Government which is complacent about the trust Scotland has placed in them to look after our NHS and has ducked big decisions which need to be taken to protect our health service.
They only offer Scotland managed decline of our health service, lurching from crisis to crisis, with no plan to take on the complex challenges we face in trying to deliver care in the 21st century.
And we must be bold again if we are to protect our NHS from the pressures it faces every day.
So how do we tackle the challenges presented by falling budgets, an ageing population, the rising cost of drugs and the complexity of people’s health?
In looking for the answers, I sought inspiration from a man who embodied Labour’s relationship with the NHS, someone we sadly lost last year.
Sam Galbraith was a brilliant neurosurgeon who saved hundreds of lives, he was a walking miracle having undergone pioneering transplant surgery and he was a tireless crusader against poverty and inequality.
When he died last year, the contribution he made to improving our country’s health over his lifetime was unmistakeable.
I found this quote from Sam, from 1999 when he was Health Minister in Tony Blair’s government just months before the opening of the Scottish Parliament.
"Scotland is preparing to start a new century with many new opportunities. But it will do so with many of the same 'fifth columnists' which continue to undermine daily Scottish life. Cancer from smoking, heart disease from poor diet and inactivity.
Too many lives scarred by the unmistakable stamp of poverty and deprivation. That is why it is so vital that we place the public's health at the top of every community's agenda.”
He is right. Scotland’s poor health, exacerbated by the inequality in our society, means that we will never have enough money, never have enough doctors and never have enough shiny new hospitals to deliver the health care we need.
If we are truly going to protect our NHS in the years ahead, then we must take on the root causes of inequality which leave too many Scots in poor health and reliant on our health service.
The poor housing, the shortage of secure-well-paid jobs and the attainment gap in our education system, all of these things embed poor health in our society and create a demand for our NHS that our doctors and nurses just can’t cope with.
And Scotland's everyday health- drinking, smoking, diet and lack of exercise – ruthlessly exploited by manufacturers and retailers with sophisticated marketing and advertising campaigns – are trapping people in ill health.
The obscenity of food banks – that families in our communities are having to rely on the kindness of strangers for their evening meal – as we heard debated today is a stark example of the inequality.
The deep-rooted health inequalities – what Sam Galbraith described as the fifth columnists’, the enemy within – present a real and serious threat - not just to our own health - but to the future of our NHS.
Only by rooting them out will we protect our NHS and build a healthcare system that can focus on the unpreventable rather than the scandal and inequality of the glaringly preventable.
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